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Do New Radio Hits Make Great Worship Songs?

 

 
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Author: Kevin Bradford
 
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Posted June 17, 2015 by

I

love new music, especially when it comes from tried and true artists. So you can imagine my excitement for the latest Hillsong United project that came out this week. Months of anticipation for brand-new songs from some of the most prolific worship songwriters of our time. But my excitement quickly faded into disappointment. I discovered my shiny new toy was rather dull.

Before you United-enthusiasts grab your pitchforks and want to burn me at the stake, hear me out. Yes, musically, Empires is creative, expressive, and fresh. I believe they have produced the album they set out to create, one that is experimental and progressive. My gripe isn’t with the musicianship though. It’s with how inaccessible I found it to be as I listened for potential songs to use with my congregation. In 20 years of leading worship, I’ve discovered a key to choosing songs for worship is knowing your audience. I believe this criterion is important if you want to engage your people in worship, especially in smaller churches. The larger the crowd, the less you have to consider your audience because you’ve already established a rapport with them and, therefore, have the freedom to explore the boundaries.

I have bumped into this issue more and more with recent albums from staple worship songwriters such as United, Passion, and even Jesus Culture. The small-to-medium sized church worship leader, like myself, has enjoyed many years of inspired songs from these artists, songs that have connected with our people. But now, as they increasingly explore creative freedom, we must realize their songs may not connect. We must pay attention to the various elements that do connect, such as style, tempo, words, and structure. It’s not about catering to personal tastes, but it is planning for engagement. Which is what we desire, right? We want to see those we lead connect with God in worship week in and week out. So we must begin to explore other avenues for new music, or we will continuously fumble with the awkwardness of the latest “hit” song not translating to the local church.

I remember when Chris Tomlin’s song “God’s Great Dance Floor” came out. My eldest son and I were on a trip to Atlanta and decided to visit Passion City Church on a day. You can imagine how elated we were to discover it was the release party for his album! We rocked along to the new tunes as we enjoyed singing along with a few thousand other people. It was incredible. And then Tomlin broke out Dance Floor. The smile across my face felt as a big as the room as I sang along in celebration of God’s love for us. Afterward, my son and I debriefed in the car about the service and how great a song Dance Floor was. I couldn’t wait to teach it to my church!

When the day came to introduce it, I tempered my excitement over the song. I’ve learned over the years how long it can take for new songs to catch on. But I was completely unprepared for the awkwardness the song was received with. Week after week, the song was met with deer-in-headlight stares across the room. I tried my hardest to make the song connect as I taught on it, encouraged participation, and even tried to shame the group to join in. (Not one of my finer moments.) Still nothing. We eventually decided to retire the song and move on.

I learned a valuable lesson through the experience. Some songs don’t translate from packed out auditoriums and concert halls to small church sanctuaries. Whether it’s style or message, the connection just doesn’t develop. And that’s perfectly ok. For us to bring new songs to our congregations, we need to stop solely depending on the tried and true and start exploring other resources. Here are three helpful places I have discovered:

  1. Write songs. Nothing connects to your church like a homegrown song. Your people will immediately take pride in knowing it came from what God is doing in your church. And you are uniquely positioned to know the heartbeat of the people you lead. You don’t have to write an award-winning song. Just tell the story of what God is doing.
  2. Discover new resources. Spotify has some great playlists and tools to help you explore what’s out there in worship music. And a fantastic new service called www.WorshipSongs.me provides user-driven content. Basically, it’s a crowd-sourced platform that allows other leaders to share what’s connecting with their congregations.
  3. Don’t do it alone. Connect with other worship leaders both locally and through social media. Ask what songs they use connect. I discovered Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters through a buddy who leads at another church. It was an instant hit with my church!
    I’m not trying to discourage you from checking out the latest Hillsong United album. You may discover some songs you want to introduce at your church. Great! My purpose here is to encourage you to expand your horizon with a few other avenues I have found to be useful. Regardless of where you find new songs, you know the people you lead better than almost anyone. Seek after the Lord in each and every set you plan and He will connect you to the songs those you lead need the most.

Kevin Bradford is father to four amazing kids, writer, pastor and coffee snob. He is currently writing his first book on how to overcome the past and become a new creation. You can connect with Kevin on Twitter @kevinpbradford or follow his blog at thebradfordblog.me.


6 Comments


  1.  
    Doug

    I think it’s definitely important to consider the congression when preparing a worship set but I also consider why certain members may not appreciate the songs also. The old statement still applies that “you can’t please everyone ” but you can please different ones at different times. We make sure to include a variety of songs that can be enjoyed by a church body of different backgrounds but we are not going to please everyone all of the time. It’s not possible. Hopefully we can influence everyone to enter in together and if I have a 150 people who like the Redman, Tomlin type stuff it may be difficult to have them enter into Hillsong Young and Free songs which were created for youth services even though there may be a song some might think can cross over.

    We recently did Amazing Grace the original hymn and had to arrange it for a modern worship band with drums and bass. When I started considering how to arrange our version it kept trying sound like a version we did 15 to 20 years ago which didn’t match our culture today. Im not saying we need to match the world but even the bible needs to be intepreted culturally. When you add drums and bass to Amazing Grace it can become pretty boring and the musical arrangement needs to be conservative yet not so simple it becomes bland and lifeless. It would be better to just sing it with only piano in many cases.




  2.  

    Thanks for the article. Yes, big auditorium songs with a big driving band sound work well with the multitudes but often do little for a smaller group. I try to write for my smaller congregation and they work quite well. Not your glossy Hillsonf United production, but solid biblical songs you can play and sing together in a smaller setting. Check it out: http://www.mattmcchlery.com Thanks.




  3.  
    Edward San Martin

    From the worship leaders perspective, I understand this article. There has got to be a place for artistic mastery however, and creative talent beyond the congregational singing. I don’t have to be able to sing the song to worship. It is sad to force musicians to simplify the songs so much and not hear the amazing vocal talents and instrumentation that could be possible. Yes, “less is more”……..but not always! What about Lincoln Brewster, Phil Keaggy, and amazing voices like Kim Walker Smith, Taya Smith, Brooke Fraser, and Misty Edwards.




  4.  

    Great post, Kevin. Thanks for putting that in a succinct package.




  5.  
    John Chase

    Sounds like we’re kindred spirits. The key phrase here is “small to medium”. I understand that the big names are free to write sweeping, anthemic, creative songs that work well in a studio or a crowd of thousands. But like you, I know my church, and I know pretty well what will work and what won’t. When looking for new songs I find myself with a lot of “next, next, next” on a CD or “thumbs down, thumbs down, thumbs down” on Pandora, etc. As more artists pop on the scene, it only makes our job that much more time consuming. I’m looking for the diamond amid the piles of slag, that needle in the haystack. I have found some along the way (that I commented on in an earlier article about songs being timeless), but they’re all hard wins. Recently, I find that a lot of the stuff CentricWorship is doing is very accessible, and lyrically rich. But on a side note, it’s interesting that Martin Smith published “Back to the Start” in 2012, then Tomlin did “God’s Great Dance Floor” in 2013. Just makes you wonder what the back story is there… here’s wishing you success and blessings in your journey!




  6.  
    Nick M

    Excellent article; thanks for sharing. We have found similar things at our church in our existing worship services. We are trying something new beginning in the fall, which will allow us a bit more flexibility for some more creative and musically complicated worship music, largely because those who are attending are coming in with the understanding and expectation that we are going to be pushing the current limits of our expectations. But, in our existing worship contexts, it is difficult to experiment in ways that change things so drastically and require such participative flexibility from the congregation without their agreement.





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